Laws are there to protect us and keep our society functioning smoothly. I like most law-abiding citizens believe that where there is a law there is a clear boundary, a rule to abide by which is punishable if broken. Today I want to discuss the law on sexual consent, specifically as it relates to underage sex, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.
What is consent? According to a government website, consent is basically giving permission for a sexual act to occur. There are several points that need to be considered when talking about consent but for my point, I will mention just 3. According to section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, A person must have (1) the freedom and (2) the capacity to consent. Under the law in England, persons under 16 do not have the freedom to consent, because the legal age that they acquire the freedom to consent is 16, thus under 16’s are not free to consent. This has been decided because children do not have the capacity to consent because they do not have developed enough brains to fully comprehend the physical or emotional implications of having sexual relations. Just as their bodies have not finished growing nor have their minds. (3) Vulnerability, children are necessarily vulnerable as they are completely dependent on adults for their needs to be met, which is why The United Convention on the Rights of the Child was introduced to give children special protection during the time we define as childhood. So that they can grow into psychologically and physically healthy adults. If one of the participants to a sexual act is an adult and the other is a child then there is an inevitable imbalance of power because of the child’s vulnerability. Whatever the perceived relationship between them or the perceived consent, adults have more power than children, thus the adult is taking advantage of their position of power by engaging in sexual contact with a child.
The legal age of sexual consent varies across the world. In South Korea and Japan it is 20, in the USA it varies from state to state between 16 and 18. The worlds lowest is Nigeria where the legal age of consent is only 11. In England, the age of sexual consent is 16 and therefore anyone under that age is too young to consent to sex, thus for a person over 16 to have sex with anyone under the age of 16 is against the law. Let me clarify, the law of sexual consent is not there to stop teenagers from experimenting with each other sexually, nobody is policing what goes on in the privacy of teenage lover’s bedrooms except for hopefully the parents. The law is there to prevent adults, people with more power, autonomy and authority than children, from taking advantage of children who are vulnerable because they lack the capacity to fully comprehend sex and they do not have the freedom to consent because of their age.
Thus, the sexual consent law is there to protect children from adult predators and if an adult is having sexual contact with a child then there is an abuse of power happening regardless of what the child thinks or feels is happening. According to The United Convention on the Rights of the Child (UCRC) states that a child is ‘a person under the age of 18 unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age of adulthood younger.’ In England, 18 is the age that we have agreed on as a society that our children can start making adult choices and living adult lives. So, I don’t fully grasp why the legal age for sexual consent is placed at a point during childhood anyway. I argue that 18 should be the age when a person is deemed to be mature, responsible and informed enough to consent to sex with a fellow adult. I don’t know who benefits from the age of sexual consent being at a point during the most confusing time of a child’s development other than of course paedophiles; adults that want to have sex with underdeveloped children.
It is widely agreed, in England, that 18 is the point where a child transitions to adulthood although it’s obviously not an overnight change. 18 is the age when they are permitted to leave formal education, procure their own property and sign a tenancy agreement. 18 is the age when they can marry without their parents’ consent and start a family without social services becoming concerned as well as claim child benefit, housing benefit and other social support as adults to help them support themselves. 18 is the age of full criminal responsibility, when the adult court deals with criminal offences and criminals are treated more harshly, rather than youth court dealing with them. 18 is also the age when they can if they so desire, purchase and drink alcohol and buy and smoke cigarettes and get a tattoo. Before which age we don’t deem them to be old enough to make informed choices with regards what they do with their bodies. So why is the law so contradictory with regards to sex? Should we be permitting children to procreate before we permit them to marry or leave education? We are sending out mixed messages when we say they are not mature enough to understand and sign a contract but they are responsible enough for the consequences and complications of sexual relationships, especially when those relationships involve adults.
The argument about some sixteen-year-olds being fully developed and mentally mature does not wash with me. I have 4 teenagers aged 13 – 19, they are ridiculously immature, they think they are adults, they want to be adults but spend an hour in their company and it becomes obvious that these little bundles of hormones are not yet ready to take on the pressures of the adult world and I personally believe that includes sexual relationships, at least when it involves adults with adult expectations. Like I stated, nobody is policing what 2 teenagers get up to in private but the law is a clear boundary for adults to respect – don’t have sexual contact with children, it can psychologically damage them. Most of the psychological research in the world will tell you that we are not fully developed mentally until well into our 20’s, so I think we should respect childhood as a time of innocence and exploration which lasts at least until 18 and not complicate the experience of growing up further by allowing the grooming of our children into inappropriate sexual relationships with adults.
As you can imagine, given my opinion on this matter, it made my blood boil this month when I read headlines such as,
‘Scandal of child sex victim denied compensation because officials rule she ‘consented’ to abuse’ (The Telegraph).
‘Compensation body told Rotherham abuse victim she ‘consented’’ (The Guardian).
‘Abused children ‘refused compensation’ over consent’ (BBC)
I was livid to discover that thousands of children have been denied compensation for the child sexual abuse that they suffered because the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) claim that children as young as 13 can ‘consent in fact’ even though they cannot ‘consent in law.’ This is absolute nonsense and sounds like a feeble attempt to justify exploiting the innocence and vulnerability of children for the sexual gratification of adults. It’s disgusting and its downright victim blaming, a revamp of the ‘she was asking for it’ defence and it makes me sick. A child cannot consent in any way because they are too young to be informed enough to consent – they lack capacity. They cannot consent in fact or otherwise before they are 16 because they do not have the freedom to do so. A clear message needs to be sent in this regard, the law is the law which is currently set at 16 and should be respected or in my opinion changed to 18. A child is a child which is a person under the age of 18 according to the UCRC. It is imperative that we stop victim blaming because it serves to justify the most heinous crime against the most vulnerable members of our society, our children. Exploitation and abuse are crimes and should be punished as such and the victim should be compensated!
‘Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse’ (Article 34).
‘Children should be protected from any activity that takes advantage of them or could harm their welfare and development’ (Article 36).
‘Children who have been neglected, abused or exploited should receive special help to physically and psychologically recover and reintegrate into society. Particular attention should be paid to restoring the health, self-respect and dignity of the child’ (Article 39).
This is the very purpose of the compensation that is being denied to victims of sexual abuse by the CICA, to restore their self-respect and dignity.
Another problem that is created by placing the age of sexual consent at 16 is the imaginary ‘blurred line’ or ‘grey area’ between the age of 14 and 16. Now I believed, as I said at the beginning of this post that the law was a clear boundary and 16 meant 16 but on speaking extensively to the police on this issue I have discovered that they tend not to follow up reports of underage sex when the child is over 13. It was explained to me that it is because they are ‘nearly legal!’ Which I find diabolical but again it’s based on the ‘consent in fact’ argument ‘they wanted it.’ It should not matter how much a child believes they want something, it is our job as adults to respect the law and the rights of the child. Most of us wouldn’t dream of giving drugs, alcohol or cigarettes to a child no matter how much the child consented because as adults we have a duty to protect them from harm.
I think this bolsters my argument that we should move the age of consent to 18 so that the blurred line is moved to 15 rather than 13. No adult should get away with having sexual relations with a 13-year-old child. My daughter was still sucking her thumb and sleeping with a teddy bear at that age, afraid of thunder and spiders. Her biggest worry was getting her homework in on time and practising for her piano lessons and that’s how it should be. Contraception, sexual health, pregnancy and adult relationships are more than a child of that age needs to be dealing with on top of revising for their GCSE’s. If we can’t remove the blurred line that is enabling predatory men and women to sexually exploit and abuse teenagers, let’s at least try to move the blurred line.
If we change the age of consent to 18 and punish anyone above that age abusing their power and adult status to seduce and engage in sexual activity with children, then we will be sending a clear message about what we find acceptable in our society. By drawing a clearer line between childhood and adulthood with regards to sex, we may be able to start tackling the problems of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation.
I would really like to know other people’s opinions on this controversial debate so please comment.